Braving the Depths of the Dice Pool

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Lately, I have been intrigued to no end by the little game Arcane Heroes by Michael Wolf available under Creative Commons at Stargazer’s World. It’s rules-lite (only 5 pages) and extremely slick for what it can do. I appreciate elegant and simple mechanical systems that still allow for a wide array of rich game experiences.

Arcane Heroes (AH) uses a basic dice-pool mechanic where successes are earned for each 5 or 6 rolled (using only 6-sided dice). Increased rank in one of the nine abilities allows one to roll more dice for associated rolls. That’s the fundamental mechanic, but implications and variations have been haunting my mind ever since I read it.

I wanted to see to what extent adding dice changes the probabilities, so I tried working out the math yesterday and mostly failed. But then I was saved, having found the nifty probability calculator and came up with these charts.

The first chart shows chance of a number of successes or better by rank (# of dice rolled). The second shows the chance of an exact number of successes by rank.

Precedent: Examples of Other Dice Mechanics

This mechanic is reminiscent of the game I played when I was younger called HeroQuest, where the dice have skulls (for hits) shields (for blocks) and blanks weighted about the same as trying for 5 & 6s. I’m trying to decide whether this dice pool system is as compelling as methods where the results of the actual dice are added up to reach a target number, allowing for concepts like Wagers or Kept Dice (7th Sea: choosing not to use all the available dice because a skill is more than sufficient for likely success) Bonus Dice (L5R?: instead of rolling 3, you roll 4 or 5 and take the best 3), Dragon Dice (Dragon Age RPG: where 3rd dice is a different color and indicates complications arising despite overall success or failure), or even Daniel Solis‘ brilliant idea of what I call Dilemma Dice (Split Decision: somewhat represented in Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple). I am very new to all RPGs and especially non-d20 systems, so forgive me if I’m mistaken at any point.

Basically, all these mechanics are great, but unavailable–strictly speaking–in Arcane Heroes. This is fine, since a simple system can have it’s own appeal.  But I’m curious how the nuances given up compare with the nuances gained, or whether or not some of these nuances can be reintroduced without too much work.

Musings on Adding to the Dice Pool


In case you didn’t know, I really like the Aspects mechanic from the FATE system. I’ve already introduced them to DnD, and I find myself wanting to integrate them into most every game system I see. In this case, I’m wondering how an overlay of Aspects would change AH’s dice-pool mechanic. Aspects would allow characters to distinguish their particular flavor within the finite set of abilities. Basically, then, if an Aspect applies positively in a given case, bonus dice are granted. If an Aspect applies negatively, dice are taken away.  I know this is a simplistic use of Aspects and misses out on some of their potency (compels, tags). I have some ideas for doing this well, but won’t go into it here.

Wagers/Kept Dice

Wagers/Kept Dice could also be introduced to AH’s basic dice pool. If a rank 5 in Melee plus a sword (+2 dice) lets a character roll 7 dice for an attack action, maybe he can choose to roll only 5 and make the remaining 2 dice Wagers. Wagers could then boost the effect of success, whatever that means. This would allow for intentionally creating what would be randomized “critical hits” in other rpgs, at increased risk of failure of course. If a character totally rocks at something though, the risk could be comparatively negligable in order to multiply results.  The application of Wagers would be tricky and I’m unsure how to quantify what effect 2 Wagers vs. 1 would have. Perhaps, for instance, Wagers on attacks could impose conditions much like the conditions of 4e DnD. A table with the ‘price’ of each condition could tell you that 1 Wager can let you add Slowed, or Dazed to an attack’s effect, but 2 Wagers could get you immobilized, or prone, or both Slowed and Dazed.

For that matter, difficulty could be guaged by Wager requirements. Anybody might succeed at Easy tasks, but Moderate tasks cannot be achieved by those without at least 1 extra dice to Wager (at least Rank 2), and Hard tasks require 2 Wagers. How would this be different than requiring 3 successes in 1 roll to actually accomplish a hard task? I’m unsure if this is a worthwhile direction to go, but it’s a thought.

Initial Conclusions

I’ve mused long enough for now, but this will continue to intrigue the living daylights out of me until I can get some good playtesting time into AH. It’s a very attractive little system, despite Michael Wolf’s caveat that it’s only a first draft, and I’d love to see how deep it can go in storytelling/gaming intricacy, immersion, and fun. Who knows, perhaps I’ll morph a version of AH with FATE Aspects, and @RyvenCedrylle‘s narrative Wealth Tokens and use the resulting simple, character-driven RPG cocktail in place of 4e DnD.

About Adam

I'm a husband, father, explorer of the inexhaustible, and synergy cultivator. Starting with D&D, my explorations into role-playing and game design have brought me to savor mining diverse systems, initially Cortex Plus, then PbtA, ORE, Forged in the Dark, and now anything I can get my hands on.